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How Do You Serve Food to Someone Who Can't See? Sheraton Overland Park Hotel
 Staff Gets Lessons to Properly Serve Blind Guests
By Alan Bavley, The Kansas City Star, Mo.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jul. 19, 2007 - July Huaman was a little nervous. In a couple of days, the Sheraton Overland Park Hotel where she's a waitress would welcome about 100 blind and visually impaired guests.

How do you serve food to someone who can't see?

How do you clean their room?

How do you direct them around the vast spaces of a convention hotel?

Those were some of the questions the hotel's workers faced as they prepared for the national conference of the Foundation Fighting Blindness.

From Friday through Sunday, the foundation will be presenting a medical research update to about 400 people from around the country. About a fourth of them are either blind or losing their vision to diseases such as macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa.

The foundation and hotel have been preparing for a year. The hotel has stockpiled special equipment for the visually and hearing impaired, such as clocks with extra-large numerals and vibrating alarms.

And the foundation has scouted the hotel for potential hazards -- a two-story escalator will be trimmed with tape as a warning, and blind guests will be guided away from the massive revolving entrance door.

"In hotels, you get all kinds of different experiences with people," said Matt Jackson, the hotel's convention services director. "You need to be a chameleon. You have to mirror your guests' experiences."

On Wednesday, about 100 hotel staffers had an opportunity to mirror the experiences of a blind person.

"Your role is to figure out what you do when you encounter a blind person," sensitivity trainer Linda Gorsuch said. "They are very independent. They want to do things on their own."

Blind people often will use their memory and organizational techniques to keep track of their belongings or learn their way around new places, Gorsuch said.

"You may see blind people touch the wall casually as they walk down the hall. They may be counting doors until they reach their room," she said. "So we ask you to be alert. Don't leave room-service trays or cleaning carts in the hallways."

Gorsuch had plenty of other advice for the hotel's staff:

--When serving food, tell the diner where things are being placed. Use the clock-face system to describe how things are oriented. For example, the water glass may be at 2 o'clock, the bread basket at 10 o'clock.

"Don't refill glasses without telling them," she said. "Don't take anything away without telling them."

--When cleaning rooms, do not move anything or put things away. A blind person may have placed a chair in the middle of his room to use as a guidepost. He most likely memorized the location of his toiletries.

"If you move them around, they could be gelling their hair with mouthwash or brushing their teeth with mousse," Gorsuch warned.

--Guide dogs are beautiful and intelligent animals, but don't touch them or interact with them unless you have their owner's permission.

"When they have their harness on, they are working and they serve a vital function," Gorsuch said. "They have to be focused on their tasks."

Gorsuch passed out red and blue blindfolds to the hotel workers and had them take turns walking through the hotel with another worker serving as their guide.

"No peeking. No peeking," she insisted. "It's an issue of trust and faith in the person who is walking you."

Arm in arm the wait staff and housekeepers went. Some giggled. Some touched the walls for guidance.

"This gives you a chance to see the total vulnerability, but also the trust that a blind person may need to have in a total stranger," Gorsuch said.

For July Huaman, the experience gave her new insights and confidence.

"I felt nervous before about blind people," she said. "Now I feel I'm sure I can help them."

To reach Alan Bavley, call 816-234-4858 or send e-mail to abavley@kcstar.com.

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To see more of The Kansas City Star, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.kansascity.com.

Copyright (c) 2007, The Kansas City Star, Mo.

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